Main Engine Cut Off

“I think we’re in great shape there.”

Jeff Foust, for SpaceNews, on comments by Lightfoot yesterday:

Part of that confidence, he said, comes from the policy certainty he believes the agency enjoys, citing an authorization act passed a year ago, the activities of the National Space Council, and Space Policy Directive 1, the White House directive instructing NASA to return humans to the moon. Those have also shaped agency plans and budget proposals, including the fiscal year 2019 proposal rolled out last month.

“If you step into the policy side of this, we’re in a pretty good spot right now,” he said, even with the occasional disagreement about programs. “I think we’re in great shape there.”



Mission Extension Pods

Really interesting announcement from Orbital ATK and SpaceLogistics:

The new system consists of two products, Mission Extension Pods (MEPs)™ and Mission Robotic Vehicles (MRVs)™, which complement the industry’s first commercial satellite servicing vehicles, Orbital ATK’s Mission Extension Vehicle (MEVs)™, by providing customers with more flexibility to extend the life and effect repairs to their valuable in-orbit satellite assets.  The MEP is an external propulsion module that attaches to and provides up to five years of orbital life extension for aging satellites which are running low on fuel, but are otherwise healthy.  While the primary application of the MRV is to transport and install MEPs or other payloads on customer satellites, it will also offer space robotic capabilities for in-orbit repairs and similar functions.

Continuing Orbital ATK’s “keep it simple” strategy, MEP installation is low risk and allows a customer to remain in full control of their satellite before, during and after the process. Both new products leverage the company’s MEV technology while adding new capabilities to its expanding fleet of in-orbit servicing vehicles. SpaceLogistics, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Orbital ATK, is now offering this innovative new system with initial launch scheduled for 2021.

Make sure to watch the video they posted, as well.

This seems like a great addition to the MEV architecture, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it grew out of customer inquiries for a stationkeeping-only service, rather than one that includes attitude control, too.

Mission Extension Pods could also handle things like end-of-life disposal into graveyard orbits—that service alone extends the useful life of a satellite quite a bit.

It’s good to see SpaceLogistics is still pushing forward even after the Northrop Grumman acquisition of Orbital ATK, and it’s good to see them working on vehicles with robotic arms, too.

The Swarm-Spaceflight-ISRO Situation

I’m holding off on making too many assessments of the Swarm authorization fiasco until we know a little more than we do now. Did one of the parties knowingly make a nefarious decision to proceed? Or did this really fall through the cracks because of how many parties were involved in getting these satellites up?

I have a hard time believing that it was an honest oversight. It certainly sounds like Silicon Valley arrogance—the type that would justify that it will be cheaper to launch now, continue development work, and fight legal battles if necessary than it would be to work through authorization issues and find another launch. But I also find that strange, given the Swarm leadership’s past experience.

No matter what, here’s my basic assessment for each party involved, from what we know now:

Swarm: A disastrous scenario that makes their future incredibly murky.

Spaceflight: It’s a bad look, and they’ll have a lot of tough questions to answer, but I think they’ll come through just fine.

ISRO: It makes any loosening of the US policy towards commercial launches on ISRO vehicles even less likely than it was before.

LeoLabs and other satellite tracking organizations: This is an incredible opportunity to show off the capability to track objects as small as SpaceBees, and LeoLabs is doing an absolutely excellent job taking advantage of it. This visualization of the four SpaceBees in orbit is wonderful. Bravo.

T+74: Stagnation and Opportunity

NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot appeared in front of the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee to discuss the 2019 NASA budget request, and I’ve got some thoughts on their decisions regarding the SLS Mobile Launcher and how it affects SLS’ flight rate. And then I get off onto a train of thought regarding the stagnation of and opportunity within the policy gridlock we’re stuck in today.

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Black Ice

Christian Davenport for The Washington Post on Stratolaunch and its future projects:

In exclusive interviews last summer, Allen and Jean Floyd, Stratolaunch System's chief executive, laid out the company’s plans for the giant plane, providing an answer to why anyone would want to build an aircraft that has 28 wheels, six 747 jet engines and a wingspan longer than a football field.

The Black Ice space plane — should it be built — would be about as big as the former space shuttle developed by NASA and capable of staying up for at least three days. It could be launched from virtually anywhere in the world, as long as the runway could accommodate Stratolaunch’s size. And it would be capable of flying to the International Space Station, taking satellites and experiments to orbit, and maybe one day even people — though there are no plans for that in the near-term.

And then it would land back on the runway, ready to fly again.

For now, the company is focused on the maiden flight of Stratolaunch, which could come later this year. Then it would decide whether to pursue Black Ice.

We’ll see if anything comes of this, and “last summer” is not an insignificant amount of time in the past, but it’s at least an intriguing project to think about and consider.

I’d hate to see Stratolaunch repeat some mistakes from Shuttle with Black Ice, though. Being stuck in LEO isn’t useful, and transfer stages are non-trivial. Large wings are useless in orbit and tough from a thermal protection standpoint. I’d love to see something reminiscent of the low cross-range Space Shuttle concepts, before the US Air Force polar orbit-once-around requirement made its way into the Shuttle program and brought with it a big delta wing.

All in all, I’m still pretty skeptical of Stratolaunch. If and when we see plans for something other than a Pegasus XL or three hanging under that giant wing, I’ll reconsider. Until then, Stratolaunch seems like a solution in search of a problem.

ESA-Led Team Fires Air-Breathing Electric Thruster

In a world-first, an ESA-led team has built and fired an electric thruster to ingest scarce air molecules from the top of the atmosphere for propellant, opening the way to satellites flying in very low orbits for years on end.

ESA’s GOCE gravity-mapper flew as low as 250 km for more than five years thanks to an electric thruster that continuously compensated for air drag. However, its working life was limited by the 40 kg of xenon it carried as propellant – once that was exhausted, the mission was over.

Replacing onboard propellant with atmospheric molecules would create a new class of satellites able to operate in very low orbits for long periods.

This could be huge for very low orbit satellites—something that has been rumored to be used by SpaceX’s second generation internet constellation to massively improve latency.

But there are some other interesting uses you can come up with, if you keep reading the details here:

Air-breathing electric thrusters could also be used at the outer fringes of atmospheres of other planets, drawing on the carbon dioxide of Mars, for instance.

There are no valves or complex parts – everything works on a simple, passive basis. All that is needed is power to the coils and electrodes, creating an extremely robust drag-compensation system.

The challenge was to design a new type of intake to collect the air molecules so that instead of simply bouncing away they are collected and compressed.

If the air molecules can be collected, compressed, and stored, you could imagine an imaging or communications satellite in orbit around Mars that occasionally drops its periapsis into the atmosphere to refuel, and once refueled, boosts its periapsis back to its operational altitude.

Aerial ISRU!

GEM 63 Boosters to Fly on Atlas V in “About a Year”

Forgot to post this until now, but last week after the GOES-S launch, I asked ULA CEO Tory Bruno when we’d see the new Orbital ATK GEM 63 solid boosters on Atlas V. He responded: “About a year or so.”

That’s exactly on schedule per what we heard in this Spaceflight Insider interview back in September 2015:

“We’ll have the GEM 63 static-fired and qualified in late 2018 […] and I think that would equate to an initial launch with GEM-63s in 2019, probably early that year,” Orbital ATK’s Program Manager for GEM 63/63 XL Jason Meredith told SpaceFlight Insider.

Aerojet Rocketdyne is riding that AJ-60A press train as long as possible.

The Regulatory Scapegoat

Jeff Foust interviewed Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross about regulatory reforms, and this part caught my eye:

In an interview here shortly before the March 1 launch of the GOES-S weather satellite on an Atlas 5, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said he has support within his own department, and elsewhere in government, to start enacting reforms that would make the department a “one-stop shop” for most commercial space regulatory activities.

“What we’re trying to do is to make it easier for legitimate space activities to be conducted,” he said. “My slogan is, the rate of regulatory change must accelerate until it can match the rate of technological change.”

Years ago, Brian Brushwood said something that has stuck in my mind ever since: “Technology always moves faster than legislation.” It’s quite interesting to hear someone in a position of government like Ross’ hit on the same train of thought.

The goal of the reform efforts, he said, is to streamline space regulations to eliminate those that are outdated or otherwise unnecessary. That’s a particular issue in commercial remote sensing, where companies have often had to wait many months — in extreme cases, years — on government reviews of their license applications.

“Right now, if you think about it, it takes longer to get all of the regulatory approvals than it does to go from design to launch,” he argued. “We don’t think that the regulatory process should be the gating element of a launch. It should be the technology and the production of the equipment.”

I agree broadly, but the examples of regulation being the gating element are few and far between. Mostly, regulatory issues are used as a scapegoat for technical delays encountered during a project.

Moon Express received approval for a lunar landing from the US government in the summer of 2016. It’s likely it will be two years (or more) between approval and their first mission.

While I admit that companies like Moon Express do need regulatory clarity before spending too much time and money on a project in a regulatory gray area, there are not many projects held up purely because of regulatory uncertainty.

No Plans for Second SLS Mobile Launcher

Jeff Foust, for SpaceNews:

Agency officials said late last year they were considering starting work on a second mobile launch platform designed from the beginning to accommodate the Block 1B version of the SLS. They argued that doing so could shorten the gap of at least 33 months between the first and second SLS missions caused in part by the modification work to the existing platform. The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel endorsed the development of a second mobile launcher at an October 2017 meeting as a way to minimize “safety difficulties” a long break between SLS missions could create.

However, NASA’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal released Feb. 12 made no mention of developing a second platform. “We did not include it in the president’s budget request,” said Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, during a panel discussion Feb. 28 at the 45th Space Congress here. “Right now we’re on our baseline path to modify the mobile launcher after EM-1.”

Hill confirmed after the panel discussion that a second mobile launcher was no longer under consideration, citing a need to fund other exploration programs within the overall budget. “We’ve got a funding level, and it’s got to be shared among the various priorities,” he said.

One question I’d like to see answered, that as far as I know has never been asked or commented on: how much time is needed between EM-1 and EM-2 for everything else except the Mobile Launcher?

I’d love to know when the EM-2 hardware will be ready across the board—the brand new Exploration Upper Stage, Orion’s Environmental Control and Life Support Systems, the second European Service Module, the second set of core stage hardware, and so on.

The Mobile Launcher may be the timeline limiting factor right now, but the other elements are non-trivial. All that considered, I’d bet that a second Mobile Launcher wouldn’t have helped shave off much time between EM-1 and EM-2.

SLS/Orion is a hardware-poor program. And don’t forget: this program is advertised on hardware heritage.

James Webb Space Telescope Problems Continue

Eric Berger, for Ars Technica:

The US Government Accountability Office published the report on Wednesday. It concluded, "Given several ongoing technical issues, and the work remaining to test the spacecraft element and complete integration of the telescope and spacecraft, combined with continuing slower-than-planned work at Northrop Grumman, we believe that the rescheduled launch window is likely unachievable."

The report catalogs a number of issues that Northrop Grumman has dealt with during the integration process, particularly the technical challenges and workforce issues needed to meet them. For example, the report cites a worrying problem that cropped up during one of the tests to deploy the telescope's essential sunshield—one of its six membrane tensioning systems experienced a potentially crippling "snag."

All of this has left the telescope project with just 1.5 months of schedule reserve. In recognition of this urgency, Northrop Grumman has, according to the report, increased its daily work shifts from two to three, and teams are now working 24 hours per day on spacecraft integration.

This mission gives me such agita. Always.